I first met Human Rights lawyer Laurie Wiseburg when I was Senior Gender Advisor to the UN Agencies in Nepal (2007/2008). Laurie's end-of-year letter for 2012 gives a behind the curtain glimpse of the frustrations and highs of life in the UN Missions in Libya and Afghanistan and an on the ground witness view of the 8 day war in Israel.
Laurie spent three months (June, July, August) based in Tripoli as Senior Child Protection Advisor to the UN Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) seconded through UNICEF. Since October she has been in Afghanistan assisting the Ministry or Refugees and Repatriation coordinate the drafting of an IDP policy.
Letter from Laurie :
‘Although there were serious protection concerns in Libya – from persons (sometimes children) in arbitrary detention held by various brigades without reference to legal procedures or principles; to migrants (sometimes including unaccompanied minors) arrested and detained for illegal entry into the country, again also often by brigades; to casualties, including children, as a result of inter-tribal fighting – issues such as the forced recruitment of children by either regular government forces or militias, or child abduction, or targeting of schools or hospitals – weren’t really part of the scene while I was there.
My accommodation was in Palm City, along with most other UN personnel – a gated luxurious community where we had very comfortable apartments, access to a health club with swimming pool and sauna, and outdoor pool where you could buy a pizza every during Ramadan, a grocery store, and a very expensive restaurant. Palm City was called “The Golden Cage” because getting out depended on getting UN transport, which was not always easy, and there were not so many places you could go in Tripoli. To the Old City and its “souk” or market, though it is not much when compared to the “souks” in Tunisia, Iran, Jordan or Jerusalem. A few restaurants and coffee shops. An art gallery. A museum. The big attractions – the old Roman cities of Subrata (45 minutes to the West) and Leptus Magnum (an hour and 45 minutes to the east) required two armoured vehicles, which the mission was reluctant to provide. I eventually got to Subrata in a taxi (a security “no no”) as I was damned if I made it all the way to Tripoli just to sit in the Golden Cage. And then I used what little influence I had with the very accommodating Chief of Staff to arrange a visit to Leptus Magnum. I also got to visit Misrata (which sustained very serious damage during the war), Benghazi (also in the east), and Kufra (1,000 k south of Benghazi – I went twice, once by air and once by road) where there was open conflict between the black Tabu and the Arab Zwei tribes – in all cases to look into the situation of IDPs or detained illegal migrants, or the consequences of the local conflicts – always with a child protection lens.
The road mission to Kufra was perhaps the most interesting although there was little to see in the 12 hour drive across the desert, except for the pipeline – that brings water from Nubian Sandstone fresh water acquifer in the south to the cities of Tripoli, Benghazi, and Sirte on the northern coast – the world’s largest irrigation project (2,820 km of pipes and aqueducts). But no caravans of camels and no Bedouin communities. Very little to photograph. When we got to Kufra, the situation was tense as the tribes were fighting again.
Ours was an inter-agency mission – UNSMIL, UNICEF, UNHCR, WHO and WFP – and we all did not calculate the risk factor in the same way. When our attempt to enter the Tabu area failed, some of our colleagues pressed to return so we ended up driving back after only one day, without accomplishing what I hoped to do. I did get to visit migrant detainees being held in detention center in the Zwei section of town, but when rockets started firing over the prison, we had to cut that visit short as well. So, 1,000 km back…and the next day we found our flight back to Tripoli cancelled because of an airline strike. We then wasted a whole day hanging around the airport in the hope of going back with another airline which we were eventually able to do. But I had to buy a new ticket, and that led me into an entirely new area of UNICEF bureaucracy. I have still not been paid for those internal flights, despite perhaps 30 emails and half a dozen people weighing in with various arguments and procedures. UNICEF’s red tape is without doubt the reddest and the longest of any I have encountered in the UN system. I was asked to extend my time in Libya beyond the three months but declined to do so. The was in Libya largely because the SR of the SG on Children associated with armed conflict thought that UNSMIL needed a child protection specialist to monitor that situation. The truth of the matter was that there wasn’t that much to monitor. And sitting beside the swimming pool is OK for a few days, but I couldn’t justify doing that for longer. And, in any event, my replacement had arrived.
So, I left Libya. And this time I knew where I was heading after a brief stop in Montreal. My next assignment would be Goma – where I was to go to supervise a profiling of the IDPs in the eastern provinces of the DRC. That was the plan. I was quite excited by it. I just needed to get a visa. And then a phone call came. Would I consider changing course. They needed someone with a good knowledge of IDPs to go to Afghanistan and help the Ministry or Refugees and Repatriation coordinate the drafting of an IDP policy. I needed to be convinced – that the government was really on board, that I would not be sitting in an office in Kabul and writing the policy myself, that I would be able to get out and talk to IDPs…. Well, my arm was twisted…. And just imagine. I could have been in Goma when the M23 rebels took over the city last month.
So I have been in Kabul since 1 October. It is now winter here, though we have only had one light snow in the city. The “buharis” – the kerosene stoves that heat the homes here – have been on for about a month. It is back to communal living with 5 or 6 of us sharing a house – which has good and bad sides to the equation. One of my housemates is a superb Malaysian cook, so I have added a few new recipes to my cookbook and put on a few more pounds. Travel is much stricter than it was when I was here in 2008. We only use armored vehicles and now there are very few places (Jalalabad is one) outside of Kabul that we can go by road , but as that requires two armored car and two police escort vehicles, it is expensive. So, on my first and so far only trip out of Kabul to date – which was to Jalalabad – I flew. I hope to get out to the provinces after the New Year, but much of my first two and a half months here has, in fact, been sitting at a desk and writing; with a government whose commitment is dubious and where even buy in from the international community is more lip service than real. And then there is Chicken Street – where I have bought two more carpets which I do not need and more jewelry which I definitely do not need. But what else do you do on a Saturday afternoon?
I did have one R&R trip. I went to Israel and arrived just in time for the start of their 8 day war. From one war zone to another. Though I must say that I had a great time despite the air raid sirens in Tel Aviv. First time I experienced that, I was walking with a cousin on the beach towards Jaffa and we took shelter in the bathroom of the Manta Ray restaurant. Eeerie. So too is the experience of seeing the war through the eyes of Israelis. I must say that the cousins I stayed with are extremely progressive, for a two state solution, for negotiations and talks with Hamas, against the hawkish and uncompromising position of this Israeli government, very affected by the deaths in Gaza, yet seeing no alternative but to retaliate when rockets are fired into Israel targeted indiscriminately at civilians. The war aside (if you can put something like this aside), It was nice getting to know this part of my family, including their young daughters in their early 20s and their friends. I also got to travel around. I went to the Galilee and the Golan Heights, to Nazareth, Rosh Pinna and Hula Nature Reserve, to Kibbutz Dagania (one of the first to be established in Israel), to Haifa, and to Jerusalem. And I thoroughly enjoyed wandering in Tel Aviv and Jaffa – to
So, let me wish all of you – my dear family and friends around the globe – a really special holiday season. It is wonderful to see another year in, because it is always filled with hope for better and more beautiful times, for more justice, for more peace, for less poverty, for less fear. And, if we can see look at things through the eyes of the young, through the wonder and awe with which they greet things new and magical, the world is truly a remarkable place, with new beauty unfolding continually. I will see some of you in the coming weeks, maybe others in the coming months. But even if we don’t meet often, I value your friendship above all other things. Write me your news when you have the time.